Sunday, August 08, 2010

Complaints, corruption & constructive criticism

A reader wrote to me complaining that I complain and criticize too much. Maybe so. When things are not as they ought to be, to complain seems the most natural thing to do. We cannot just be deeply unhappy with how things are and merely accept them. After all, all major social advances have started with a complaint. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights campaign, or Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, would not have begun if not with a complaint that the status quo was untenable and needed to be changed.

Take corruption, for instance. Corruption in the Philippines is a multi-million dollar business without borders, especially when the other party involved is a foreign government or a transnational corporation.

Two recent examples easily come to mind. First, the bungled $329.5 million contract between the Philippine government and the Chinese firm Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment Limited (ZTE) during the previous Arroyo administration. The deal called for setting up a National Broadband Network (NBN) for the Philippine government to be financed by a loan from China.

After the contract with ZTE was signed, allegations of overpricing came to light due to huge bribes and payoffs to government officials closed to former President Arroyo. The NBN-ZTE deal was later cancelled and a question regarding the constitutionality of the deal before the Philippine Supreme Court was dismissed.

All the alleged major players in the scandal (including the former president and her husband Mike Arroyo, former Department of Trade and Commerce Secretary Leandro Mendoza, and former NEDA Secretary Romulo Neri) were spared by the Office of the Ombudsman with the exception of former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos who is now under trial for corruption charges. Abalos was believed to be the principal broker of the deal and has actively lobbied for the approval of the contract in exchange for money and sexual favours.

The second example is the awarding by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Central Bank of the Philippines of the contract to Oberthur Technologies, a French company and world leader in secure technologies for the production of hi-tech electronic passports. In compliance with the 2010 deadline imposed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for travel, these new electronic passports will come equipped with a tamper-proof microchip that will contain the identification and personal information of the bearer.

The new e-passports will be more expensive and this has worried Migrante International, the largest organization of overseas Filipino workers (OFW). Migrante is not only concerned with the hike in passport fees but also with emerging allegations that the $18.41 million procurement contract with Oberthur to produce the e-passports is illegal and tainted with corruption.

It’s like the NBN-ZTE deal déjà vu all over again, according to Migrante, borrowing Yogi Berra’s popular malapropism.

Oberthur was the same European company tapped by the DFA and Central Bank to print the embarrassing 80 million P100 bills that misspelled former President Arroyo’s surname to “Arrovo” in November 2005. The opposition party had the biggest fun of their lives claiming the mistake was intentional, pointing out that “rovo” in Spanish means robbery.

It was also the same company involved in an overpriced $34-million passport project in Kenya in 2004. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki discovered the anomaly and ordered the suspension of four senior government officials from the finance and home affairs ministries, as well as the director of the government’s information technology service.

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) brought charges before the Office of the Ombudsman against the DFA and Central Bank for graft and corruption practices and overpricing in 2007. In 2009, Kabataan Partylist and Anakpawis Partylist both filed resolutions in Congress to investigate the anomalous contract with Oberthur but so far, nothing has been done. One wonders why the Philippine government entered into a contract with a company like Overthur despite of its unpleasant track record. This is one of those transactions the present Aquino government might look into. Chances are that President Aquino will take a pass since he has retained the responsible DFA Secretary in his present cabinet.

This new electronic technology in passports has received quite a lukewarm reception even among computer security experts. The passports will be equipped with RFID chips, which stand for “radio-frequency identification.” Passports with RFID chips store an electronic copy of the passport information: your name, a digitized picture, etc. In the future, the chip might also store fingerprints or digital visas from various countries.

These RFID chips operate via proximity, much like the ones used for automatic toll collections on roads or on ATMs. The possibility of surreptitious access is always present. Your passport information might be read without your knowledge or consent by a government tracking your movements, a criminal attempting to steal your identity or someone just curious about your citizenship.

While security mechanisms like shielding have been added as security features, they don’t go far enough. Most oftentimes, one shows his or her passport in open areas like airport line-ups, hotels, or banks. Anyone interested in harvesting passport data could easily set a reader in one of those places.

In the United Kingdom, collecting biometric information in passports is seen not necessarily a positive way to assert one’s identity but could also be used to track people who are invisible, or illegal workers who survive in the black economy without status. This could be the heavy price we pay for our privacy in this modern world, where nations are becoming more wary about illegal immigrants and workers, much more about the influx of potential terrorists.

If there was corruption by government officials in procuring the new e-passports, President Noynoy Aquino should order his Truth Commission to look into this matter. He could ask DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo and the Governor of the Central Bank to explain, and if he’s not satisfied, for him to do the right thing.

In the meantime, the Philippine government can consider the idea of suspending the price increase in the cost of obtaining a passport for overseas workers. After all, overseas workers have been shoring up the national economy through their income remittances, a reason why they are called our “living heroes.” What better way to acknowledge their contributions to our country but to exempt them from the passport fee hikes.

In these times when exploitation and abuse of vulnerable immigrants and temporary workers abroad have become rampant, Filipino overseas workers need assistance and protection from their government any time they are at risk. They sacrifice limb and body, including their pride and self-respect, in overseas jobs oftentimes beneath their skills and educational training, and away from their families and loved ones. Any additional cost in obtaining passports or other documents in order to travel will impose an onerous burden on them. Once they are overseas, most are left to fend on their own with hardly any protection from their government, yet they are the ones continually pumping money to our economy.

Take for example the case of stranded Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia. While waiting for their repatriation, the workers sought temporary refuge under the Khandera Bridge in Jeddah. When the Saudi police barricaded the bridge from migrant workers, they found a new home outside the premises of the Philippine Consulate General, living like squatters inside makeshift tents beside the consulate building and enduring the hot weather outside which had reached 40 degrees Celsius. This was happening while Filipino consular officials and their staff sit in their air-conditioned offices.

In Toronto, Filipino nannies complained of fraudulent recruitment practices and abuses by their employers while the Philippine Labour Attaché could only wait and see what steps the Canadian government will take to respond to the plight of these workers. Rationalizing that the nannies’ problem was a contractual issue between them and their agents and employers, the Labour Attaché has continued to wash his hands off the issue and to rely on the efforts of Filipino advocacy groups in Toronto to represent these Filipino workers. One also wonders what the Philippine Overseas Welfare Administration is doing to protect our overseas workers with all the money it has collected from OFWs as compulsory membership fees now estimated at about $293.4 million annually.

Returning to my earlier observation, an English writer said, “Complaint has a noble history. It has driven human society forward and led to the abolition of systemic injustice.” Complaints can be constructive, too, instead of simply being trivial whining and griping. Indeed, our ability to complain is integral to the expression of our own humanity.

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